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Appreciating Death through 'Wit'

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Etcetera at Live Theatre Workshop

Appreciating Death through 'Wit'

'Wit' has a smart, compelling structure matched by its emotionally draining narrative

  • Toni Press-Coffman plays a dying cancer patient in 'Wit.'
    Live Theatre WorkshopToni Press-Coffman plays a dying cancer patient in 'Wit.'

“Wit,” the Pulitzer Prize winning play, is easy to love, but difficult to watch. The one-act drama, presented by Etcetera, the Live Theatre Workshop late night stage, has a smart, compelling structure that is matched by its emotionally draining narrative.

Contemplation of Death in the abstract is one thing; the overwhelming reality of an individual death, even if merely simulated by an actor, is something much more difficult and personal.

Essential to this play is a dedicated actress in the lead role as a woman dying of cancer. This “Wit” has that in Toni Press-Coffman, who is also an award-winning playwright and a member of local Wind Road Theatre ensemble, with her husband, actor-director Glen Coffman.

“Wit,” is an exceptionally well-written play by Margaret Edson, based on her own hospital experiences. The story follows scholar Vivian Bearing, an uncompromising academic and a leading authority on 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, to her death from a combination of stage-4 ovarian cancer and the toxic effects of her aggressive chemotherapy.

Bearing believes she understands Death (with a capital D) from her extensive study of Donne’s work, including his poem, “Death Be Not Proud.” In her hospital gown, she addresses the audience directly, providing a bridge between vignettes and serving as her own Greek chorus on the proceedings. She even warns us cheekily that she will die by the end of the play, eliminating any audience expectations of a Hollywood ending.

Given how late the cancer was discovered, an aggressive, experimental course of chemotherapy is Bearing’s only treatment option. She has some rapport with lead researcher Dr. Harvey Kelekian, based on their shared academic principles: a cold-hearted love of knowledge and a haughty distain for undisciplined minds. Coincidentally, his assistant researcher, Dr. Jason Posner, is a former student of hers, a survivor of her notoriously difficult class on Donne.

Bearing soon discovers that from a research perspective, she is mostly a lab rat whose value is in generating data. The researchers concede only perfunctory gestures towards her humanity. Even Posner, who recognizes her personhood at first, gradually objectifies her. Only Nurse Susie Monahan defends her against the dual indignities of the researchers and her illness, respectful of Bearing as a human being.

Two flashbacks illuminate Bearing’s love of language: her discovery as a child of the mystery of words while reading with her father, and later, her deepening of that discovery through her academic mentor and fellow Donne scholar, Dr. E. M. Ashford. Another flashback to her classroom demonstrates her cold and superior attitude towards her students, an attitude that comes back to haunt her at the hands of the researchers.

True to its title, “Wit” is both intellectual and, at least initially, surprisingly funny. The ironic humor early on eases us into the subsequent grim tragedy. The doctors obliviously ask their increasingly terminal patient, “How are you feeling today?” turning it into a punch line. The discussion of Donne’s work, which still resonates four centuries after his death, provides philosophical context, creating a frisson against the emotional and physical chaos of actually dying.

Toni Press-Coffman gives a sympathetic and dedicated performance as Vivian Bearing. On opening night, she still seemed to be internalizing the part, her gestures and speech initially more studied than natural. As her character descended into physical illness, as well as emotional turmoil, Press-Coffman eased deeper into the demanding role. She shivered with fever, she retched, she endured humiliations. She proclaimed her character’s internal loneliness and desperation with a primal fear that matched her earlier external fierceness as a proud and respected individual.

The supporting cast, all incidental to the long shadow cast by the lead role, includes Glen Coffman as Dr. Kelekian and Ryan Butler as Dr. Posner. Butler also briefly plays Bearing's father in the flashback. Paul Cerepanya, Casi Omick and Robbie Sanchez play the various ambience roles as students, clinical fellows and hospital workers.

Most noteworthy, after Press-Coffman, was Carley Preston as both Nurse Monahan and mentor E. M. Ashford. Preston did an outstanding job snapping into the play’s two most sympathetic characters, despite the significant differences in the characters’ ages and backgrounds.

Director Christopher Johnson, artistic director of Etcetera, does a deft one-man band thing, also handling costumes, set, light and sound. His fast pacing and economical stage enhanced the overall effect on the side of brevity without sacrificing emotional impact, an important consideration in a show that doesn’t commence until 10:30 at night.

In an otherwise strong and well-performed show, the only quibble of the evening involved a less-than-adequately signaled shift in character on-stage by Preston late in the play. Not catching that, since to enforce the hospital setting there are no costume changes to assist the audience, may have left some who were unfamiliar with the play or the Emmy-winning 2001 movie starring Emma Thompson, slightly bewildered about a pivotal interaction.

In the final cathartic scene, Vivian Bearing does die, and Toni Press-Coffman bravely stood naked on the stage, alone, shorn of hair but not dignity, facing the light. It was not pretty or sexy, rather it was one of those rare moments of transcendent beauty in the theater.

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